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Assisted dying law changes ‘matter for MPs but Government will not stand in way’

Helen Whately said debate in this ‘sensitive area’ is one that should be led by MPs at Westminster and it should be for Parliament to decide.

Any change in the law to make assisted dying legal in England is a matter for Parliament but the Government would not stand in its way, a minister has said.

Social Care Minister Helen Whately insisted debate in this “sensitive area” is one that should be led by MPs at Westminster and it should be for Parliament to decide.

Ms Whately, who appeared before the Health and Social Care Committee for the fifth and final session of its inquiry into assisted dying and assisted suicide, said the Government is watching what is going on in other countries and other parts of the United Kingdom.

Labour MP Paul Blomfield referenced Scotland, the Isle of Man and Jersey as being three areas of the UK which are “moving down this path”.

He asked the minister whether there is any thinking around what the Government’s response would be “if assisted dying, as is anticipated, becomes legal within UK jurisdictions?”

Ms Whately said: “I know that we observe and watch what is going on in other countries and, clearly very importantly, within other parts of the United Kingdom. And we should watch as those proposals progress in those other areas.”

She said she had not personally been involved in any discussions within Government about the possible implications of an area of the UK adopting a law facilitating assisted dying but “cannot say for other discussions that may have happened”.

She told the committee on Tuesday: “The Government’s position is that this is a debate to be led by Parliament. And so a change to the law in this sensitive area would be something for Parliament to decide.

“It’s an issue of conscience for individual Members of Parliament. If the will of Parliament is that the law on assisted dying should change then Government would not stand in its way.”

Claire Macdonald, director of My Death, My Decision which is campaigning for a change in the law, welcomed Ms Whately’s comments but called for a “meaningful vote” on the issue.

She said: “The evidence is clear, where assisted dying is legalised, jurisdictions see better funding for palliative care, a better understanding of death and better choices for people at the end of their lives.

“We are glad to find out that the Government won’t block assisted dying legislation, but the way politics works means that we haven’t had a meaningful vote on assisted dying in nearly a decade. The people of the UK desperately want to see this issue addressed.”

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, who also appeared before the committee, said he was not aware of any modelling work that had been done by the NHS on the investment that would be needed to provide medically assisted dying.

Sir Stephen, who is national medical director of NHS England said: “This is a policy area that I don’t think it’s appropriate for NHS England to get involved in.

“Obviously, as we’ve just discussed, I think this is a matter for Parliament and, I mean, if Parliament so wished and directed through Government NHS England, then of course that is something that we would need to consider.”

Ms Whately said there is a “positive story to tell” when it comes to the quality and provision of palliative care generally in England, but acknowledged variation and inequality in access to care as her biggest areas of concern, including access to out of hours care.

She praised fundraising efforts for hospices as “a good thing” when it was put to her that a previous witness to the inquiry had described it as “odd that, societally, we found it acceptable that hospices were funded by the sale of secondhand jumpers”.

The minister said “a lot” of end of life and palliative care is provided and funded through the NHS, and that some hospice funding also comes through the NHS as well as “through the fantastic support from donations, whether that’s legacies, people making regular substantial donations, but also shops and the other ways that hospices raise money”.

She added: “I think we should say, that’s a good thing and not be critical of that. But let’s not forget that a large amount of funding for palliative and end of life care is actually through the National Health Service, and through our taxpayer-funded system.”

The committee, which has heard from peers, experts, and Swiss organisations including Dignitas, is expected to publish a report later this year.

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